Sleep: The Secret to a "Dream Team" Workforce

Published last month, a 2012 Harvard Medical School Study[1] has shined a (night) light on the subject of fatigue in the workplace. Illuminating the prevalence and impact of limited sleep on employees’ performance, productivity, health and safety, the eye opening study results link disturbed sleep with poor workplace function and considerable financial cost.

Surveying more than 10,000 Americans - with a specific focus on 5,000 employed citizens - the Harvard researchers estimated 20% of the participants suffered from insomnia – chronic sleep difficulty over at least 12 months - with the condition linked to 7% of all costly workplace accidents and errors (such as car accidents, miscalculations and assembly-line mistakes resulting in shut-down) and 24% of workplace mishaps overall. In total, the research team estimates insomnia to be responsible for approximately 274,000 American workplace accidents and errors annually, adding up to a $31 billion bottom-line smack in (avoidable) costs per year.

The early findings of a 2011 study indicate a similar scenario for sleepy British workers[2], also finding correlations between longer working hours and shorter sleeping periods, as well as high job satisfaction and good sleep quality.

“Sleep deprivation negatively affects our mood, our ability to focus and our ability to access higher-level cognitive functions” say Dr. Stuart Quan and Dr. Russell Sanna of Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine.

“The combination of these factors is what we generally refer to as mental performance”[3]

Besides lowering mental performance – and in so, productivity – impaired sleep also poses serious health and safety risks to the workplace. Increasingly prevalent, sleep disorders are amongst the most common-presenting problems encountered by physicians[4], with flow-on complications to a variety of serious physical and psychological health conditions - research clearly documents a strong association between poor sleep and diabetes, obesity and hypertension as well as depression, suicide, anxiety and disability.[5]

Moreover, with sleep disorders cited as a top cause of road accidents[6], it’s no stretch to imagine their impact in the workplace. Compared with individuals who receive adequate sleep, employees who report excessive daytime sleepiness due to disturbed sleep are more vulnerable to accidents and injuries both on and off the job.[7]

Combined, these factors have the potential to critically impact workplace performance, productivity and overall profitability.

To date, occupational health has commonly addressed issues such as cardiovascular disease, smoking, alcohol use, diabetes, and back problems in the workplace, but has rarely focused on sleep. Now, these recent study results should provide a strong rationale for workplaces to improve the detection and treatment of insomnia and sleep disturbances, and at the same time, reduce the associated costs of sleepy performance and fatigue-induced mishaps.

There are a number of simple tactics employers can take to address and turnaround workforce sleep disturbances:

  • Prioritise Balance

First and foremost, implementing a culture that genuinely and demonstrably values health, rest and work-life balance will pay powerful dividends in employee performance and productivity. A now outdated culture that equates sleep with laziness and lack of sleep with dedication is still far too entrenched across many workplaces and should be replaced with one that encourages the keeping of reasonable hours and after-hours disconnection from work.

  • Promote Health

Workplace health initiatives which educate and encourage active lifestyle behaviours will help employees to prioritise their health and also to achieve the physical and mental wellbeing levels conducive to good sleep. Case in point: more than half of all employees who participated in the 2011 Global Corporate Challenge® reported improved sleep quality as a result of program participation.[8]

  • Offer Flexibility

Where possible, loosening workplace practices to allow more flexible working hours can help employees to more easily and efficiently accommodate personal and family commitments, facilitate less stressful commuting and maximize their personal “power hours” of working for optimal productivity.

  • Provide Support

Training management to detect and effectively handle stressed and fatigued employees can help nip sleep-starved situations in the bud. Similarly, encouraging strong and supportive peer relationships creates a social network which can also support stressed, sleepless employees and steer them towards solutions and assistance appropriate to their specific needs.

Directly impacting performance, productivity, health and safety, there is no element of workplace success not diminished – and on the flipside improved – by sleep. As such, supporting employees to take up healthy sleep practices can do more than just stave off unnecessary productivity and financial drains – sleep might well be the powerful performance enhancer needed to take your business to the next level.

[1]  Shahly V; Berglund P; Coulouvrat C; Fitzgerald T; Hajak G; Roth T; Shillington A; Stephenson J; Walsh J; Kessler R. America Insomnia Survey: The Associations of Insomnia With Costly Workplace Accidents and Errors. Harvard Medical School. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2012
[2]  Understanding Society. Chapter Ten: Social And Health Patterning Of Sleep Quality And Duration. ISER University of Essex,. 2011
[3]  Huffington A. “How To Sleep Your Way to the Top – Literally”. Huffington Post, October 28, 2012
[4]  Lamberg L. World Health Organization Targets Insomnia. Journal of American Medical Association. 1997
[5] Rosekind M; Gregory K; Mallis M; Brandt S; Seal B; Lerner D. The Cost of Sleep: Workplace Productivity Loss and Associated Costs. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2010
[7]  National Sleep Foundation. 2008 Sleep in America Poll: Summary of Findings. 2008
[8]  Foundation For Chronic Disease Prevention in the Workplace GCC 2011Participant Survey Data. 2011

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